Is Annie Chambers’ mirror, found at the National Archives, really all that is left of Kansas City’s “Scarlet Corner”?
If so, it’s sad. One expects etched glass, maybe depicting Cupid hovering over a fleshy Venus, maybe frolicking nymphs. The frame, at least, should be ornate gilt, sphinxish bosoms sprinkled here and there.
But, no. The 7-by-8-foot looking glass is practically puritanical. From this we may conclude that clients did not visit her establishment to admire themselves.
“Devoted to Fun and Humor” declares the little advertising card for her brothel, for decades at Wyandotte and Third streets.
Cattlemen, railroad workers, traveling salesmen stomped under Chambers’ little pagoda porch with its concrete bamboo supports.
Down the street, however, Emma Williams seemed to be going for the undertaker trade, her card offering “The place where a graveyard blossoms into mirth …”
And was Lou Martin, another madame a few doors farther, trying to draw the mathematician trade, declaring her operations as “Kansas City’s Houses of Questionable Geometrical Proportions”?
These discreet enticements are found in a “Little Black Book,” kept at the Kansas City Library’s Missouri Valley Room.
They’re proof of the flourishing red light district just two blocks over from police headquarters at old City Hall.
Following the cards, one can take an imaginary (everything was leveled and rebuilt years ago) sinful stroll. Here’s Fourth Street, on the north side only, mind you:
▪ 200-02 is Madame Lovejoy’s mansion.
▪ 204-06, Eva Prince’s next door (other times it’s Mattie Lee’s, “High Life and Contentment.”
▪ 232, Madame E. McKinney’s; “Come all Ye Disconsolated … First-Class in every Respect.”
▪ 234, Emma Howard’s, “For Beauty, Style and Refinement.”
▪ 236, Estella Walker’s, “Lots of Ladies Fun and Frolic.”
▪ 238, Nellie Sherman’s, “The House Above All Others.”
▪ 240, Leatha Watt’s, “Grand in Every Respect.”
▪ 242, Miss Mollie Hall’s St. Louis House where “Saints Delight.”
▪ 244, Jennie James, “The Place for Royal Fun.”
▪ 252, Miss Fannie Wilson, “Twenty-nine Elegantly Furnished Rooms … Home of Queens of an Enchanted Region.”
Turn the corner onto Broadway, and here’s Julia Lewis’ door, “Fit for the Gods.”
The district still stretched on in every direction, from Second to Sixth streets and May to Maine. By 1910, there’d be 128 brothels known to police.
One gets the sense of hundreds of sex workers, trapped by their circumstances, packed like sardines in those brick walls.
Eventually, morality drives broke up this “resort” district and simply scattered the prostitutes to new locations farther south. The police never stopped winking, certainly not under the Pendergasts, and neither did the newspaper reporters.
One Kansas City Times reporter smirkingly wrote in 1881 how a Miss May was toying with a small revolver in her room while her nervous client pleaded for it to be put away. Sure enough, she shot herself in the hand.
“Her friend ‘Chick’ came rushing in, looking as if she had just burst from her naked shell.”
They don’t write ’em like that anymore.